A few years back, while researching a book called Conservation Refugees about Native peoples who had been evicted from their lands to make way for parks or preserves, I was interviewing an Ojibway woman named Bertha Petiquan in a remote region of northern Canada. Petiquan spoke no English so her daughter, Alyse, offered to translate.
photo by Robert Linsdell, on Flickr
When I used the ‘W’ word in a question Alyse went blank. “Sorry, there isn’t a word for ‘wilderness’ in our language, could you elaborate?” I fumbled for a quick definition. “You know, a wild and barren area, no humans, lots of ferocious animals.” Alyse tried that one out on Bertha, whose answer prompted her daughter to burst out laughing. What was so funny? I asked.
“My mother says the only place she knows that fits that description is a street corner across from the bus terminal in Winnipeg, Manitoba.”
“No humans?” I asked.
“Definitely no humans,” Bertha answered with a wry smile, “but lots of ferocious animals.”
There you have it – the Ojibway definition of “wilderness.” My turn to laugh.
Over four years of research I met many Indigenous people who thrived in landscapes that looked as wild as anywhere yet whose language had no words for “wild,” “wildness,” or “wilderness.” I began to wonder why societies populated by people who spend most of their lives, if not all of them, in places like New York or Los Angeles do have a word for wilderness. And I wondered what exactly they meant by it.
The term we Western urbanites use derives from three old English words – ‘wild’ ‘deor’ and ‘ness’ – and thus its literal meaning is “an area for undomesticated deer.” Early English wildernesses were lands reserved for royal practitioners of deer hunting and falconry. Of course many of the earliest American conservationists, who spoke and wrote lyrically about the wild places they sought to preserve, were also protecting their hunting grounds.
The Sanema people of southern Venezuela and northern Brazil hunt and fish on land you would swear was pristine. They have no word for “wild” or any of its derivatives. However, their neighbors, the Piaroa, who live in a forested landscape indistinguishable from the Samema’s, have a word, dea, which does seem to mean “wild” and is also used in the construction of their word for shaman – dearuwang – which translates roughly as “master of the wild,” which brings “wild” closer to the German notion of wild as ungovernable. Hawaiian Polynesians divide their land into two areas: wao kanaka, the realm of man, and wao akua, the realm of the gods. Wao akua is kept wild at all costs. It doesn’t belong to man; it belongs to God. The Chinese word for wild is ye, which means a deserted, desolate landscape.
I finally figured out that “wilderness” is a concept that doesn’t translate well. Culture clearly determines the semantic of wildness and wilderness. It’s not the word that has to be translated, but the entire ecological ethnography of whatever culture you’re observing.
I found this to be true again in another part of Canada. Until the Auyittuq National Park was created on Baffin Island by the government of Nunavut, there were no words in Inuktitut to fit the concept of a national park. By combining what they heard from the government with what they had long perceived to be wild, the Inuit coined a term that translates as “a place where animals rest.” Then, after watching a flood of tourists descend on the island, that term was replaced by one that translates as “a place where white people come to play.”
I recently overhead a debate in which a wilderness romantic, determined to refine and defend his personal definition of wilderness, divided the concept into two separate categories – upper and lowercase wilderness. Upper case, he said, was real wilderness – vast, roadless, trail-free areas occupied by large predators. Lower case wilderness could be found in national parks – virtual wilderness, a cunning artifice of the real thing. The argument descended from there into such ridiculous semantic subterfuge that I walked away mumbling to myself that wilderness may not be a place at all, but, as Roderick Nash concluded, simply “a state of mind.”
Every January I choose a word that has attained such ambiguity – like “liberal,” “irony,” or “sustainability” – that it has become virtually meaningless, and I suspend it from my vocabulary for a full year, hoping that over the months ahead linguists will hammer out something solid in the way of a definition. I’m still waiting on some of those words.
Much like those other concepts, “wilderness” has become so overused to describe so many places, environments, and situations, that it is almost meaningless. So I have selected “wilderness” to be my word to avoid for 2015.
Mark Dowie is an investigative historian living in Willow Point, CA.
For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.